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North Texas Tollway Agency Signs Off on $1.6B Project

Correction: Jane Willard will be the only female member at this time.

DALLAS — Amid big changes in leadership and policies, the North Texas Tollway Authority has agreed to build what could be its last major project for several years.

The $1.6 billion Southwest Parkway that the NTTA board approved Thursday will be the authority's first tollway in Tarrant County, connecting downtown Fort Worth to its southern suburbs in Johnson County.

The NTTA has already approved the sale of $400 million of bonds for Southwest Parkway and another project already under construction — Texas 161 in western Dallas County. Bonds issued for the joint projects will not be backed by the rest of the NTTA system, the first time the agency has made such an arrangement.

The 28-mile-long Southwest Parkway demonstrates the NTTA's mission to expand from a Dallas-area agency into one serving the entire North Texas region. Increasingly, its tollways are seen as financial alternatives to the traditional highways financed through fuel taxes and built by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Chairman Paul Wageman, who is leaving the board after four years as chairman, has overseen the authority's expansion and the more than tripling of its bond debt over the past five years.

"As NTTA's first project in Tarrant and Johnson counties, this roadway ties the NTTA to the western portion of the region and gives millions of drivers additional transportation options," he said.

Commissioners in Collin County, which Wageman represents, voted to replace him with Jane Willard this month. She will be the only female member currently serving on this board.

Board member Victor Vandergriff of Arlington plans to seek the chairman's position. If successful, he would be the first chairman from Tarrant County.

In one of his last battles, Wageman fought to retain the NTTA's so-called legacy system of contractors who had built and developed financing for toll roads over the years, resisting efforts to open bidding to new contractors. The agency's five legacy firms are financial adviser RBC Capital Markets, bond counsel McCall Parkhurst and Horton, consultant Wilbur Smith Associates, engineering firm HNTB and law firm Lock Lord Bissell and Liddell.

In a meeting this week, the board voted to develop a system for reopening bids for the contract work, including that of McCall Parkhurst and RBC.

McCall Parkhurst was the top bond counsel in the first half of the year in Texas, handling deals worth $5.7 billion, including $400 million from the NTTA. RBC was the number-two financial advisory services firm behind First Southwest Co., working on nearly $1.1 billion of deals in the state.

With more than $8 billion of debt for a slate of projects that include the new $3.2 billion Sam Rayburn Tollway north of Dallas, the NTTA is focusing on keeping its senior-lien credit rated A-minus by Standard and Poor's and A2 by Moody's Investors Service. The authority's subordinate-lien debt is rated BBB-plus and A3 respectively.

The NTTA dropped Fitch Ratings when it lowered the authority's senior-lien rating to BBB-plus in February 2008.

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